Miami is sparkling and raucous; Orlando is full of thrills; but the little town of St Augustine, nestled into Florida’s historic coast, has something those glitzy big cities lack: charm.
Founded in 1565, St Augustine, 65km south of Jacksonville, is North America’s oldest continuously occupied European settlement. And it shows: more than 450 years of history are infused into its cobbled stones, from its narrow, winding streets and old colonial forts to its bright Spanish Revival architecture soaring in gilded towers. This may be the USA, but it feels more like an old-world European break.
That is, apart from the beaches. St Augustine may have history that predates the country itself, but this is still the Sunshine State. White sand stretches 67km along the coast, from golden bays filled with buzzing resorts to wild desolate dunes with not a soul around. Kayak along peaceful waterways with dolphins and manatees brushing past your boat, hike nature trails through estuaries ringing with birdsong, or cast a line and wait for tarpon and mackerel to bite.
That’s what St Augustine is about. Culture and open air. Historic sites in the morning, wild coastal adventures in the afternoon. Sounds pretty charming to me.
Fifty five years before the pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, Admiral Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés spotted a tiny Timucuan village on the coast, came ashore and claimed it for Spain. Those roots still define St Augustine to this day, especially in its Historic Downtown: 144 blocks of living history framed by the sparkling waters of Matanzas Bay.
The sites here though are interspersed between museums, galleries and restaurants with outdoor terraces that spill onto the streets [see next page]. This is a place to wander, to slow down and soak in the atmosphere, colour and scents – of fresh seafood and sweet treats – that drift on the air.
One of your first stops should be the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park (fountainofyouthflorida.com; $15.96[£12] adult), which marks the site of the original Timucuan village, Seloy, where the town was founded. Dispersed around its 61,000 sq km waterfront are numerous exhibitions that showcase the Native American and colonial history of the town.
Nearby, is the Castillo de San Marcos (nps.gov; $15.96[£12] adult): the oldest masonry fortification in the United States with nearly 350 years of stories hidden within. But, perhaps, most impressive of all is the Colonial Quarter, a walk-through recreation of the town in different stages of its history, from 16th century boat makers and blacksmiths to 17th century watchtowers, where Spanish soldiers would have watched for pirate flags on the horizon.
Beyond St Augustine’s Downtown there’s a lot more history to explore, just a short drive away.
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